March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

One day last August, Bennett land Mary Propp sat their 21-year-old son Matt down in the living room of their small Albuquerque home for a heart-to-heart talk. There, they finally broke the news: He was adopted. He wasn’t entirely surprised. “I’d had a feeling for some time that I’d been adopted,” says Matt, who had realized he didn’t resemble either of his parents. “When I found out, it didn’t really hit me as a shock.”

But there was more—and this part was stunning. The Propps revealed that their real names were Barry and Judith Smiley and that they had fled the New York City area with Matt 20 years earlier, after his birth parents had tried to get him back. For two decades, the Smileys acknowledged, they had been living under assumed names because they were wanted on kidnapping charges. “They told me everything,” says Matt. “They felt it was in my interest.”

Since then, the debate over the best interests of everyone involved has gotten a lot more complicated. On March 8 Barry Smiley, 56, made national headlines when he turned himself in to authorities in New York City to possibly stand trial for kidnapping. Matt’s birth father, Anthony Russini, now 41 and a plumber living in Westbury, N.Y., expressed delight that his son had been found. But in a way that went to the very core of what it means to be family, Matt himself seemed mainly concerned with defending the man and woman who had cared for him since he was an infant. “My parents are the people I’ve known for 22 years,” he told reporters in Albuquerque, “the people that have loved me, cared for me. I can’t say there’s anything in my life I want to change right now.”

Born in March 1979 in Syosset, N.Y., to 19-year-old Debbie Gardner and her boyfriend Anthony Russini, also 19, Matt was originally named Anthony. He was 3 days old when he was put up for adoption and given to Barry and Judith Smiley, who had been unable to have children of their own and had tried unsuccessfully to adopt in the past. They worked for the city of New York—Barry as deputy director of personnel, Judith in the labor relations department. But Gardner, who has said she never wanted to give up the baby, maintained that her parents, ashamed of the out-of-wedlock birth, had tricked her into signing adoption papers. By the end of the year, she and Russini were married and had won the first of several court decisions in their effort to get their son back. A Queens family-court judge finally ordered the Smileys to return the child, by then 15 months old, to the Russinis in June 1980. But when the birth couple went to get him the Smileys had vanished.

Distraught, the Russinis hired lawyers and private investigators to track down the fugitive couple, to no avail. The family estimates they spent more than $100,000 on their search. The Russinis eventually had two other children, Chris, now 19, and Jennifer, 17. They divorced in the mid-’80s, and both have since remarried, but they never gave up hope that someday they would be reunited with young Anthony. “It’s heartbreaking,” says Russini, explaining that every time he passed a child with light hair and blue eyes he would do a double take, wondering if it could be his son. “I thought about him every day.”

Meanwhile the Smileys had settled in Albuquerque, where they introduced themselves as the Propps, using the stolen Social Security number of another New York City employee. There, in contrast to the comfortable middle-class life they had enjoyed in New York, they were forced by their circumstances to eke out a far more modest and less visible living. Bennett, as he was now known, started a business carving wooden toys and later sold silver jewelry to tourists in the Santa Fe Plaza.

Still, Matt’s childhood was a happy one. “I always had everything I wanted,” he says. Despite the cost, his parents sent him to a private elementary school. Raised Jewish, he was bar mitzvahed when he turned 13. Most of all, though, his parents gave him their time and their love. “If I had a school play, my dad didn’t work that day,” Matt says. “If there was a field trip at school, my father was there with a van to take the kids to the museum.” The family took vacations to places like the Grand Canyon, Disney World and, says Matt, “every Sea World in the country.” The Propps said little about their background or relatives but gave no indication they were anything but ordinary parents. “They threw every bit of their energies into their son,” says Debi McNeil, a vendor who knew them from Santa Fe. “They sacrificed their lives for him.”

Matt graduated from high school in Albuquerque, then briefly attended the University of New Mexico. He has held a variety of jobs, most recently as a security guard at an Albuquerque hospital. His ambition, he says, is to become a police officer. Initial reports had it that the Smileys feared that Matt’s true background would come to light when he applied for a job as sheriff’s deputy and could not produce his birth certificate. Matt says, however, that Barry and Judith went to a lawyer in Albuquerque last July to bring their fugitive status to an end because he was now grown. Matt had even tried to talk them out of it. “They had a lot of integrity,” he says.

After months of negotiations with prosecutors, Barry surrendered—and has since been released on bail—while Judith, 54, recuperating from knee-replacement surgery in Albuquerque, is expected to turn herself in to authorities as soon as she can travel. So far Matt has had one reunion with his birth father, spending a day recently with Anthony and the two siblings he had never met, Chris and Jennifer, who live with their father and his three children by his second wife, Diane. (Matt’s mother, Debbie Gardner, who lives in Florida, has so far had no contact with Matt. She has declined to speak publicly about the case.) Matt concedes it was an awkward encounter. “For the first hour,” he says, “we all sat around a table and pondered what to say.” Since then he has been in frequent contact with the Russini family by phone and e-mail. “I hope to form a relationship with them as another part of my family, you might say,” he says. “They are a great family, they really are.”

At this point, it is not certain that the Queens district attorney’s office will try the Smileys for kidnapping. On one hand, argues the Russinis’ lawyer Frederick J. Magovern, “A crime’s been committed…. No one can give them back the lost years.” But Matt himself has said he does not want the Smileys to stand trial—which could carry considerable weight. Perhaps wary of antagonizing his son, Anthony Russini has kept silent about what he thinks should be done. But in some ways he appears willing to move on, just happy to have Matt back at last. In an interview he said he had no intention of calling him by his given name, Anthony. “He goes by Matt, I’ll call him Matt,” says Russini. “You can’t change things 22 years later.”

Bill Hewitt

Michael Haederle in Albuquerque, Rebecca Paley in Westbury and Fannie Weinstein and Jennifer Weil in New York City

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